Tuscany. Deep green hills, sunflowers, farms, and wine. Oh, and the wine. A picturesque view of undulating hills, and all the salami your heart could desire.
Daydreaming about one of the major cities? Pisa? Siena? Florence? It’s easy to get lost in the pandemonium that is a tourist hot spot, and it can sometimes feel overwhelming enough that you do not get the authentic experience you are really looking for.
Sure, crowds and seeing more tourists than locals is an inevitable experience when traveling to major tourist destinations. However, there are ways to sneak in to the hidden local life that thrives under the initial façade of mass crowds, crappy pizza for tourists, and constantly being hustled by street vendors.
Florence, Italy has over 15 million tourists visit each year. Here are some tips to experience the true face of the city.
The river that runs through Florence is called the Arno river. This splits the city in half; the Duomo side, and the Oltrarno side. Can you see the word “Arno” inside this word? Oltre + Arno = beyond the Arno. By simply crossing the Ponte Vecchio, you enter into the other side of Florence which is a bit more inhabited by locals and a bit less overrun by tourists.
This is not to say that you won’t run into tourist crowds or ex-pats, but it does mean that your chances are less on the other side of the river. Here you will find a more laid-back vibe since most of the major tourist attractions are on the Duomo side of the river.
There are a few major attractions like Palazzo Pitti and some well-known piazzas. Having lived on both sides of the river during my year abroad, I can definitely confirm that the Oltrarno is better for living.
As far as accommodations, the Oltrarno usually has more economic choices. I spent on average about 20 euro less per night by staying in the Oltrarno versus the Duomo side of town. The savings can also transfer into dining out, as there are fewer overrun squares as the Duomo side, naturally causing prices of food at restaurants to be a euro or two less.
The Oltrarno is also quieter.
When you stay in a more residential district, you get more access to the culture because there are less barriers.
Some excellent Oltrarno neighborhoods to check out:
Florence is a small, walkable city center. You can get from one side to the other on foot in about 45 minutes. But what’s outside the city center? Take a bus and find out!
My favorite bus line is the #7 to Fiesole. This scenic route takes you outside of the center up the cascading hills of the suburbs until you reach the summit of Fiesole. This residential town was the original home of the Florentine royal ruling families.
There are great places to eat, Roman ruins, and a climb up to a monastery with an excellent view of the entire Florentine valley.
Recently, the city has installed many automatic distributers of ATAF bus tickets. Make sure that you validate your ticket at the machine once you get on board or face a 50 euro fine. You can also get tickets at the tabaccheria (tabacco shops marked with a white “T” on a blue background) and sometimes at bars (the Italian term for a café).
You can catch most major bus lines from Piazza San Marco. See all the ATAF bus routes here.
There are many rooftop places to scout out a great view of Florence that are unknown to the fast-paced tourist. Good thing we are slow travelers!
Looking up in Florence can get you to some of the best views of the Duomo and other spots where locals love to hang.
For an intimate view of the Duomo, head over to Piazza Santissima Annunziata. This quiet piazza is home to a church, a convent, a hotel, and the Istituto degli Innocenti, a family resource center and museum which used to be an orphanage. There is much more to be seen in the piazza, but for now, we will look up.
At the entrace of the Museo degli Innocenti, you will find an elevator. You guessed it! Take it to the highest floor and enter the paradise that is Caffè del Verone. Here you will be face to face with the Duomo and get a unique view of other parts of the skyline of Florence like the synagogue.
This off the radar caffè is my special place, so don’t tell too many of your friends 🙂
These “secrets” are just scratching the surface of all that can be experienced in this enchanting, historic city. Remember, when traveling anywhere, it is important to do research to be able to enjoy the true face of the destination and support the local economy and culture.